In the supercar bar, the arrival of the Corvette Stingray is a truly Crocodile Dundee moment: “that’s not a knife, that’s a knife.” Rivals run for the door clutching their fancy ignition keys; business just got serious…
By the time Chevrolet produced its first Vette in 1953, Ferrari was just six years old and had only produced five models, three of them basically the same car. Lamborghini was a decade away from creation, Maserati was offering its first-ever proper road car the A6 1500, Porsche was making a sports car based on the VW Beetle, Ford’s first Mustang was 11 years away, Bruce McLaren was still racing an Austin 7 and Aston Martin was producing the DB2 compete with its own cravat rack...
In 68 years, Corvette has been America’s supercar. It’s been the star of Kiss Me Deadly, King Of The Mountain, Terms of Endearment, and Boogie Nights, and is the chosen whip of my second favourite fictional LA private eye, Elvis Cole. And while its brash style might have drawn the scorn of all of the above manufacturers, it’s been reliable, fast, fine handling and perfectly suited for its market; qualities which could hardly be credited to all.
And just to make all the rivals choke on their Campari and sodas, in all that time Corvette has sold the grand total of 1,741,410 Vettes to the world (mainly America). Given just how hard it is to produce something as single minded as a sports car under the ownership of a big conglomerate such as General Motors, the Corvette team deserve a bloody medal.
And now they’ve really put a cat among the pigeons and gone and produced a mid-engined model. In fact, Corvette engineers wanted to move the V8 behind the cockpit as far back as 1960, but there’s tradition here and not all of the Vette traditionalists agreed with the move.
It’s a long time since John Cooper and Owen Maddock first shoe horned an engine behind the driver of a grand prix racing car, but the benefits of a low frontal area, lower polar moment of inertia and greater manoeuvrability and agility stuck in designers’ minds and when Lamborghini produced the Miura, the supercar was born.
The new dawn of battery-electric motoring with the batteries in the floor means a lot of those mid-engined advantages will eventually be circumvented, but for the moment, mid-engine means supercar and that’s it.
Chevy’s contribution here might be great looking, but underneath it’s quite old school. There’s an aluminium-rich structure with die-cast lower bracing at the rear and carbon fibre underneath the huge centre tunnel and behind the rear bumper. It’s bigger and stiffer than the outgoing front-engined C7 model, weighs 1530kg dry and 1.66 tonnes with oil, water and petrol.
At 4,630mm in length it’s quite a big car, but the payoff is in a big, roomy two-seat cabin and 356 litres of luggage space in the front and rear.
With two virtually identical body styles, the coupe, which starts at £74,200, has a lift-out Targa roof, which just about fits into the rear luggage space, and the cabriolet, which starts at £79,200, weighs 35kg more and has a motorised folding roof deployable at low speeds.
From the front and side, the new Vette is a fantastic looker. The rear isn’t quite so handsome, with a strange ‘stacked’ appearance. It’s also very sensitive to colour and I’d avoid the orange.
Where the old models used a composite transverse leaf spring as the springing medium (despite the scoffs from Top Gear types, there’s nothing wrong with this arrangement), the new C8 has upper and lower wishbones with coil springs and in the European Z51 form, adjustable magnetic fluid dampers all round. There’s a front lift function to save the chin spoiler from grating on steep slopes and speed bumps, with a GPS sensor so it can remember 1,000 locations where it needs to deploy. And to help save those lovely alloys against the kerb stones, there’s a front ‘curb’ camera.
The exterior coachwork is all glass fibre and engine is an all-new version of the naturally aspirated cam-in-block, pushrod V8 engine displacing 6.2 litres, mated to an eight-speed, twin wet-clutch transmission developed by Chevrolet with Tremec. The output of 475bhp at 6,450rpm and 452lb ft of torque at 4,500rpm, is enough to give a top speed of 184mph and 0-62mph in 3.5sec. The lesser versions available in the US go a bit faster as they don’t have the aero packs to suck them on to the road.
Not such great reading is the fuel consumption of this big, naturally aspirated beasty, which is a Combined figure of 23.3mpg. After some pretty fast driving in Germany I achieved 23.6mpg, so I reckon 25mpg is possible if you stroke it.
Again, the transient throttle inefficiencies of non-turbo engines shows up in a CO2 figure of 277g/km. It means a first-year VED rate of £2,245 and a £335 luxury car tax supplement for five years after that.
That wide centre tunnel allows quite modest sill sections, so getting into the cockpit is fairly easy. Once you’ve popped down in the seat, the views out front are comprehensive, although the rear-view mirror is full of engine bay and the door mirrors are half filled with air intakes.
There are three types of seat available and after driving the top two versions we’d plump for the Competition seats, which are supportive and snug, but not uncomfortable.
The cabin wraps around you, with a high centre console and an enormous dorsal fin filled with a confusing set of buttons mainly for heating and ventilation. The rest of the switchgear is around the driver with a switch capstan for the driving modes: weather; tour; sport; and track. There’s an over designed gear selector switch, nicely-to-hand gear-change paddles behind the squared-off steering wheel and a small instrument binnacle in front of the driver with a head-up display.
It’s all very close to, poking out in places at the driver. Chevrolet calls it a ‘jet-fighter cockpit’, though since I’ve never sat in a jet fighter I wouldn’t know and the weight and stiffness of some of the controls seems more like arm-wrestle cockpit.
Push the starter and the 6.2-litre pushrod eight rumbles into life. In automatic, the C8 pulls away smoothly and the eight-speed ‘box doesn’t really miss a beat around town, only thumping a change if you aren’t careful with the throttle.
In fact, despite its looks and, at times, quite fearsome exhaust note, the C8 is a bit of a pussycat. On Michelin Sport tyres (305/30/20 at the rear and 245/35/20 at the front) specially developed for the car, the low-speed ride in Tour mode, while slightly trembling on regular small bumps and thumping over pot holes, isn’t really that bad.
The engine’s a constant presence, a bit like the brass section from a Motown band following you around. It instantly answers the call, catapulting this big car up the road as fast as you can blip the paddles. This is with the Performance Exhaust, and given that there have been complaints that the standard car is too quiet, they might be worth saving up for.
On wet and slippery roads, it was perfectly possible to spin up the rear wheels out of the turns, though the configurable traction control was a calming and confidence-inspiring presence.
Switch modes, reset your brain and push the throttle to the floor. Thrust is immediate and shocking as the speedometer digits flash upwards. At 160mph and above on the autobahn the Vette felt steady, calm and highly vocal.
Turn off the motorway and onto the twisting wide roads east of Frankfurt and the C8 is grippy and eager, though it might have been nice to have a tiny bit more on centre response out of the steering. The chassis balance, however, is fantastic.
“You can basically almost pick the front tyres right off the ground and push out of the turns,” says Alex MacDonald lead development engineer.
That you’d expect, but the turn in is terrific, with a taut feeling and responsive steering, complete with an ability to swivel deeper into the corners by easing the throttle. And it’s the confidence that inspires which allows you to exploit the new Vette that bit more than some of the rivals. No, it’s no Lotus and the Evora Sport 410 is still the feedback standard to which other mid engined cars must be judged, but the confidence inspiring Vette comes close.
The brakes, Brembo four-piston monoblocs are slightly larger for these European-spec cars and are wonderful, with a strong yet progressive response especially at the top of the pedal where it really counts.
Aficionados have questioned Chevrolet’s decision to move the engine location for the C8 Corvette and it has to be admitted that some of the charm and brawn of the old front-engined Vettes has been lost, but not all of it. The practicality, the user friendliness, the big-hearted all-American demeanour of the Corvette are still embodied in this new C8, but its enhanced control response, and traction, get this fantastic car right up there, toe-to-toe with cars costing three times as much.
And then you look at the right-hand-drive availability and the £74,200 starter price and you wonder not just how the single UK agent, Ian Allen of Virginia Water (www.ianallanvirginiawater.co.uk/) is going to cope with the burgeoning 250 plus order book, but whether there will be anyone left in the supercar bar when the C8 walks in…